Archive for May, 2014

Stories.

May 25, 2014

“Tell me a story about when you were a little boy!”, Bruno crawls over my lap, his knees poking into my skin, “where has that baby fat gone?” I wonder as a grimace appears across my face. My memory comes in spurts and when it does, it is shaded as if it were hiding behind a soft white, almost transparent curtain. At night. This child has heard all the stories I can remember from my childhood, for the most part these number less than the number of digits on my hands. But the boy never tires of them, in his mind they are always fresh, always new but if I tell the story wrong he commands and corrects my telling, reminding me that I left a part out.

My brother lives across the country, practically in an entirely different country in fact, he lives in Texas and when we talk it is through the hic-cups of our days, mostly when I am driving in my car and he has a moment to spare. I see the other main partner of my childhood, my older sister Erica, more frequently as she just lives down the winding road of Interstate 71 in Southwestern Ohio, near my mother and my nieces. The stories have been bandied about, and if they were a piece of metal they would be burnished smooth by now, as they have traded hands, ears and tongues over the year only the rooms in which they have been told have changed. For the life of me I wish I could remember more, but a childhood spent moving from town to town and school to school (I attended seven by the sixth grade) did not exactly re-enforce memories. I struggled with making friends until the fourth grade, as my brother left my mother’s house in the third grade to end up at living with our father, Zoltan was my constant playmate so emptiness filled me much of my second and third grade years.

Long Island was uh, long, when we entered New York City for the first time, driving straight through from the soon-to-be burned out streets and houses of Youngstown, I was awoken by my mother and siblings, “wake up we are in New York!”, I crawled from the floor of the back seat, no doubt my face filled with the red lines from the plastic floor coverings. I rubbed my eyes and stared straight up out of the window, the highway twisted around high-rises that stood like sci-fi trees, with thousands of lights bursting into the sky I thought of all the people who lived in them. New York City was another world compared to Youngstown, where mornings smelled of rotten eggs from the burning and melding of steel just miles from our blue-collar house.

We lived on the far east end of Long Island, in a small town near East Hampton called Springs. It is best known for being the town where Jackson Pollock lived and William DeKooning lived a few houses down from us, but by that time in the mid-seventies, his mind must have been eaten up by dementia, although my mother remembers him talking to her about us, her children.

For some reason, my memories of Springs (which are very few) are idyllic although we barely spent more than a burp there. My step-father, at the time, David had gotten a job working as a scientist near Montauk which lies at the tip of the Island complete with a massive and brilliant lighthouse. His office, or laboratory (?!) was just down the road from the lighthouse, and I have vivid memories of walking the beach at Montauk as what appeared to be billions of mussel shells stretched over the sand in crunchy bunches that cracked and split under my shoes. The dense odor of salt and fish is still in my nose nearly forty years later. We lived in a small house that abutted a small thatch of woods to the rear of the house, with a quick shuttle through the woods, nary a spit from our back door we would be at a small harbor. We spent hours in those woods and on our small wooded street, where I taught myself to ride a bicycle, got bit by a dog and had a disastrous  first attempt at a sleep over.

There was a community picnic one evening, just off the beach, volleyball was set up and the older children had taken a group of us fishing. The sky was a whirl of clouds, twisting over the ocean, mimicking the breaking waves, filled with grays, whites and iridescence blues that appeared to be a cauldron that could come and swallow the ocean if the universe would only let it. I held an older boys hand, the rain would come, I was certain of that but for now, we were going fishing and my parents lay just beyond the lump of trees that provided a shimmering barrier between the beach and the grilling of chicken, hamburger, hotdogs and corn. In hindsight, this must have been the weekend of the fourth of July. There were piers constructed of hunks of blue and black rock that strode bravely into the sea, where one could fish and stare into the vastness of water while contemplating the smallness of oneself. These were slippery rocks and were instructed not to go to the end of the piers where the water was more dangerous and violent. Only the big kids could go there. A young fattish boy, with a yellow ball-cap helped me bait my hook, I had some experience fishing with my father and told him I could cast the line myself, which I dutifully did. Sitting quietly by myself as the bustle of ten and twelve years old, raged on further down the pier, no doubt engaged in primitive games of masculinity for girls who giggled at their antics, no doubt because they had no other idea of how to react. The fishing rod, pulled gently–a small tug and knowing instinctively to tug a little back and suddenly like shot from a gun, whatever was on the other end of the line swallowed hard and sensing immediately that the food it had just eaten was not a normal dinner as the hook dug deep in its throat, frantically tearing away from the thin line that twisted in its mouth, “good God! What the fuck is this?!” it may have thought, if it was possible for a sea creature to hold such a thought. It fled, and in doing so, my little-boy hands, soft from innocence and barely large enough to hold onto the fishing pole, wrapped themselves around the base of the pole, frantically trying to reel the fish in.

It was a struggle and I was shy, my brother was towards the forbidden end of the pier, no doubt throwing small chunks of rocks into the sea with the other boys, some shouted out behind my slight shoulders, “that kid’s got something!” By now my fishing pole was bending into an almost half moon and the sweat and excitement was now pouring from my brow. “I’m sweating!” I thought, “I never sweat.” Suddenly the fat boy with ball cap, cupped his hands over mine, “let me help you,” he whispered behind me, “wow, you got something big here.” A small group of children hovered around us, trying not to slip on the wet rocks, “be careful” somebody hushed to another. The line was taunt, and for every spin of the reel, the fish would take another foot of wire deeper into the sea. The struggle of the fish was apparent in the effort we were putting into bringing it ashore, with our feet and ankles wading into the sea. Careful not to slip. At one point, it became obvious that we were winning, as the pole almost dragged us into the water, and with a couple of yanks and pulls we managed to shore a long, slick black eel, its body twisting out of the water and the sharp teeth clutching tight against the fishing line. “what is that thing!” yelled yellow cap. “It’s an eel, they are delicious!” I spoke for the first time, “my dad eats smoked eel.” Someone behind me shouted, “that little kid caught an eel!” The realization that I had done something exhilarated me, “hold on!” I screamed and went yelling towards the picnic. Leaving the group of children with the frightened animal, whose entire world had just been transformed into nightmare absurdity, I ran across the sand, “I caught an eel! I caught an eel!” If I had died then, I knew in my heart that I had accomplished something extraordinary. My gravestone, tall and proud, scripted with the words: “He caught an eel.” My mother hearing my shrieks had thought my brother had fallen into the sea, “where is he? is he ok?” She must have thought I was screaming, “Z fell into the sea!” instead of “I caught an eel!” or something like that. Quickly settling things, my parents and others ran towards the pier, and upon arriving on the wet rocks, the wind picking up with thick pellets of rain striking our faces we were informed that the eel had slipped through the rocks and was back out at sea. “did you get the hook out?” I asked, not wanting it too suffer. “Yeah, I was taking it out when it squirmed away” yellow shirt replied, “you are a good fisherman kid,” and he rubbed my head. Zoltan told everybody what happened, how I was fishing by myself and off on my own, and then how I caught the fish, “it smelled real bad!” A part of me was disappointed that the eel had gotten away but I was also relieved.

Bruno loves to hear this story, as I sit on his bed, behind me a large framed Spider-Man puzzle given to him by a close friend and on the other wall a huge Avengers poster (the comic book, not the band), his room littered with Lego’s, Charlie Brown books and on top of his book shelf and Dinosaur Jr. poster. Some nights, as the wear and tear of trying to patch together people’s tattered emotional lives takes its toll on me, I climb in next to him and I tell him a continuous unending story of a father and son, alone of a dingy hiding the plans they had stolen from a mad scientist titled “How to Take Over the World.” His world is simple, easy and I can tell him stupid shit and he’s cool with it, as I tell him the story of the father and the little boy, how they avoid getting caught, I fall asleep. “Daddy, wake up, you’re falling asleep.” Of course I am I think.

 

and a few of Bruno’s favorites:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqZPGT0TsZ8085gaunt-93040805bela2

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Pearl Williams part-two

May 13, 2014

Disclaimer: Pearl Williams is not a real person although she is based off of people I have worked with over the years in my job as social worker. A few years ago, I was talking with Micheal Galinsky about creating a book that included some of the clients I have worked with and having Mike take photo-graphs, but we have never gotten around too it. I created Pearl to give light to so many of the impoverished women I have worked with over the years, whose lives are sad reminders of those in society whom we don’t care to look at. I have always been amazed at the fortitude and resilience of these women. This is a work in progress.

 

Pearl stared at the white lady playing with her grandbaby, the child was smiling, big brown wet eyes that gathered in the room, and she breathed deeply and pointed to a black and white picture of a group of Native-Americans on the wall, their faces haggard, clothes constructed of leather and long feathers hanging from belts and it said, “Real Homeland Security.” The little girl poked a tiny brown finger up at the picture, “Who are do’s people?” The white woman smiled and said, “Oh, they are Indians, they used to live here but they had to move away.” Eyes growing bigger, “They lived in this office? All those men, lived here? Where did the sleep?” With laughter erupting, Pearl scooped up her grand-daughter, “Child, you causing trouble?” and kissed her on the cheek. “No mami, they have candy here. Right there in that drawer.” The white lady said, “she’s adorable, she’s fine. Are you done already?” Pearl grimaced, “no, ‘fraid not, still got some more to tell that man.” turning the little girl, “hey, grandma will be back soon, ok?” “Yes mame. It’s neat here.”

Pearl sauntered through the courtroom, she eyed the man she used to know as he sat with his felt hat on his lap, his carefully pleated black trousers, pressed dark shirt and white tie in stark contrast to the young man sitting next to him, who was playing with his tiny tight dread locks with one hand and bouncing the other hand off of his knee as if he were playing drums to some song in his head. Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. It went across the entire courtroom, her old friend leaned over and whispered a loud, “son, you need to cut that out, you in big trouble here. This judge may not like that commotion in his courtroom, and why did you wear that ugly ole shirt?” Tap-tap, tappitty-tap. Pearl shook her head, was it at the boy or more at herself? The courtroom was full now, the Judge was on the bench, his gray haired pulled back, he was holding onto a croquet mallet, gesturing to an attorney in front of him he smirked and said, “now Kevin, I’m not afraid to use this.” There was an entire flock of attorney crowded around him, most of them smiling and joking, a stark contrast to the folks who were sitting in the chairs and the smooth wooden jury box that curved in front of the judge. Here were the great unwashed, a litany of the poor and impaired, some by mental illness, others by intoxicants and every one by unfortunate incidents, somewhere, somehow that lead to being in the courtroom today. Next to her old friend and his grandson, was a young scrawny white girl, her face so taunt that it looked as if it were pulled over her face with pliers. Her eyes hung low and dark, deep into their sockets they were tired. Not just from the dope , whose faint echo in her veins was turning into nausea but from what she they had witnessed. Rapes, countless backhands to her face, two screaming children and the grim of dope houses, sleeping on couches and eating cold Dinty Moore stew from a can.

The man appeared again, he was holding a bottle of water, extending it he offered, “you ready to start again?” “thank you, sure I am.”

Pearl wiped her mouth, looked up at all the certificates and diploma’s adorning his walls, “you sure is a smart man.”

“Aw, not really, these just prove if you pay someone enough money they will give you anything.” She liked his self-deprecation.

“That one there, you went to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland?” She pointed to a large framed diploma.

“Yes, I did. I got my Master’s degree there. I was expensive!”

“Well, I lived there. In Cleveland for a while after my first baby. My cousin lived there, just near the University, I moved up there when I was 18, my boyfriend had family up there so I figured, hell, why not?”

“When was that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, early 80’s or so. Right before that crack-cocaine blew the lid off everything. My boyfriend got caught up in that, I had no idea, I was naive. I mean they called it free-basing back then. That was just after Richard Pryor got his-self on fire doing that free-basing, well shit, they just figured out how to sell it to the ghetto.”

She shook her head at the memory, “yeah, that’s when shit hit the fan….” Her voice trailed off and she took another drink of water. Breathing deep she explained, “he’s the one who got me into it. I was mad, I had three babies by the time I was 21 and I was working as a maid in the Cleveland Clinic. He wasn’t really doing shit except not coming home. I told him one day, he had been gone for like a week. ‘What the hell are you doing all the time’?”

Nodding, he asked, “and what happened?”

Laughing and putting her bottle on the desk, “well, that son-of-a-bitch took me over to  93rd and Chester, or somewhere around there. Do you know where I’m talking about?            Anyway, he took me to a crack house. Although, I don’t even know if that was a term  back then, we just went to a party-house. That’s what we called it. So, I smoked it. I didn’t     leave that damn house for three days.” She shuddered a little, “I left my three babies at  home. I just forgot about them, my oldest must have been eight or nine and he got the       neighbor after we didn’t come home. She watched them. After that though, I was gone. I  mean, there wasn’t nothing that was going to stop me. Eventually, my Auntie took the kids, someone called Children’s Services on me and I told them I was sick, you know like  I had diabetes or something. I was a crazy person. I lost those kids inside of four months of using crack. My man got arrested for manslaughter, and went to prison. He done killed this man on the corner, over nuthin’ really. I think it was drugs but he was gone and then we lost the apartment and I was homeless. It just happened so fast, I wanted to die when they took my babies.”

“That must have been tough, working so hard and then losing your children?”

“Well, it was but you know what? It didn’t stop me from using drugs. Not a bit. I knew something was going on with my mind as well, it had been since I was a girl. I’d hear         things, just little things, like a whisper or someone murmuring but there wasn’t anyone shut it out, I didn’t mind being poor and black or what-have-you but I did not want to be   crazy.” She paused, sighed and looked at him straight in the eyes.

“I was good looking to, one thing I can tell you about crack, it takes the weight off of you. I had three babies and I still wasn’t big like I am now but I did that crack and the         pounds just melted off, I figured, why not use what the good-Lord-gave you and started walking the streets. I had a girl-friend who said I could earn good money doing it, so I  just started doing it, I thought nothing of it. But it got weird and scary real fast.”

He looked at her, his eyes casting over her, and he could not imagine this woman selling herself on the street. Her purple coat bunched up around her, enveloping her and her horrible memories that were burping out of her like pop-corn popping. There was no stopping her.

“It got real strange at that time, mid to late eighties. Hustling the streets, one time I was  out there, it was cold, there were icicles hanging from the gutters almost all the way to the ground, the wind would literally cut you. It felt like a knife, that wind did.. and this limo pulls up and the tinted window rolls down. I walk up to the car  and this man with glasses points at me and my girlfriend and we laugh and jump in. He  was with one of the sports teams, a general manager or something, a rich white guy. He didn’t say nothing but his body-guard or whoever the hell he was did.”

She grew quiet. “That was some fucked up shit” she took a drink from her cold coffee cup and stared a head.

“That fuckin weirdo took us back to one of the fancy hotels downtown, and ordered up all  this seafood, you know those black shell-fish, mussels they call them. He had ordered hundreds of them and he had me and my girlfriend take off all our clothes and he made us     put them things all around our coochies, and he just mumbled some shit about pussies       and mussels. He got us high alright, that made it better but we were there for hours, into  the next day with these fucking little fish that look like tiny pussies up around our legs. I can’t stand the smell of fish to this day, and he never even wanted to fuck us or nothing. I  cut my big toe going to the bathroom on one of the shells they were scattered all over the          floor like as if a big ole chunk of wind just gathered them up and set ’em down.  That crack put me in some weird spots.”